Tuesday, February 23, 2016

the plan is go, the guides are your monsters

a flirtation with “it had been planned and there were guides” by jessica lee richardson

This is how I imagine you and I met: I was on the bus carrying a sack of flour like a baby. You came up to me and wordlessly stuck your knife up through the bottom. As the flour spilled quietly into the black rubber rivets, we looked one another straight in the eyes and knew our lives were changed forever. Well, mine, anyway.

You mentioned a vacation and I asked you about it. “Oh, it was scary. My ride on the concrete boat. There is such a thing as a concrete boat, you know. Don’t want you to go down the wrong stream.” I think I’ve heard of concrete boats, but wrong stream? I’m not sure such a thing exists, anymore, since we met. How did you put it? “His penis went soft because I took his rape.” How can there be a wrong stream again after that?

I told you about the song I’m writing that goes like this: Stockholm Syndrome? There’s a sign you’re already in hell/ To think it’s crazy just to love someone you’ve grown to know so fucking well and you answered a story so beautiful that I wished you were whispering it in my ear in pitch blackness so my expression could be private. (I like to cry sometimes.)

How old are you? You exude experience but tenderly, like a child. I’m not even talking your kids Chase and Check, though “he smelled like socks, but he had a point”...(Nods). Or Ko, whose mind you excavate: “Not warm, not sweet, not milk. ‘Not,’ she cries in non-speech. The shapes circling her are the wrong shapes again. The not.” I can almost remember my own babyhood when you cup my toes the way you do.

I’m not even talking about the auctioneer, “Baby,” who seems in some ways the adultest (“She never planned the confessions that became her filler words. She found out what was bothering her and what was beautiful to her by what came out.”) Or the actual baby left on the doorstep, who “cries as if she could write a new world if she is just loud enough.” (Wow, that’s a lot of babies.)

I guess what I’m trying to say lies somewhere between Doctor Who moments like this: “What good is a body paint that is too hot to touch the skin? I won’t bore you with the details. I will just say that there are other ways to keep particles in motion and give you a little wink” (I’ll give YOU a little wink) and this kind of phrasing: “Colin’s job at the factory: Stick enormous metal comb into a deep rectangular tray of paste. Well Colin called it paste.”

Can I say you translucent things? There are babies inside of adults and inside of babies, the things that make adults what they are. The absurd wonder inside the mundane and how to do perfectly the things that I pray inside of the night will never happen.

It’s misleading, for those un-attuned to foreshadowing, that you should reference guides and plans in your name. In your presence I can expect most of what I understand to fly out the window, and then I can expect the window to turn out to be something else. And that something else will be looking at me in a reassuring way though it is shaped like Terror. What guide or plan would send reassuring Terror after me?

Do not assume from this that I will avoid your void. “His mouth frowned but he curled his body into a smile.” Your whimsical dark makes me braver, like “Cruddy” by Lynda Barry. The illuminated shapes of your twisted beasts on the walls teach me the nature of illumination.

You are so fucking zen. The monster is me and the direction is forward, and nothing will be okay, exactly, but there is a crystal pool waiting in the between where “It’s all here for you, blinding love--the way to win.”


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Writing Update

Here are some things I've put out there since my last post on this blog. At the very least, I'd like to keep my publications updated here.


Nonfiction columns on Ethics and Writing for Atticus Review:

"My Beef with Polish"

"The Gods of the Bestseller Lists"

"Bees, Service, and Privilege: How I Justify Writing in Dystopia"

Fiction in print:

"The Disappearances" in The Fiddlehead

Fiction online:

"The Big, Bad Wolf gets home from work" in Waccamaw


Great news: I may have found a local writing community. I'm super excited. Will update.




Friday, August 2, 2013

Review of "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting


Tampa has generated a lot of chatter for its adept handling of a controversial subject—the seduction of a eighth grade boy by his extremely attractive but unfortunately sociopathic English teacher. As someone who adored Nutting's collection Unclean Stories for Women and Girls, and, I'll be honest, as someone who mildly idolizes the pixie of a woman behind these two literary accomplishments, I highly anticipated this book, and it didn't disappoint.

I never picked it up without reading several chapters and I got through the whole thing in two days, which is my equivalent of reading it in one sitting (considering how many novels-in-progress slump quietly throughout my apartment). It’s hard to say whether it was an enjoyable read, exactly. More of a squirmy, dark, disturbing read. Celeste’s sense of humor is sharp but cruel, and there is not a single character in the book you can unreservedly champion. But was it compelling? Certainly.

I was curious to see how deep into depravity Nutting might delve—she strongly discouraged her parents from cracking the cover. My conservative, religious parents are likewise certain to be traumatized by the descriptions within. But for a book that goes into such vivid detail describing both the sensual and the grotesque, it never felt gratuitous. You’ll find more darkness in the realm of the psychological than the sexual. Consider this passage as Celeste prepares for an unpleasant sexual encounter with the father of one of her conquests:

“Your wish is my command,” he whispered. I felt a gagging tug at the back of my throat but managed to swallow it down with a quiet burp. He quickly fumbled off his shirt and pants, each sound a tortuous reminder that we hadn’t even started yet. There was a small slapping sound of hand on skin, the equivalent of Buck having to prime gasoline into a lawn mower engine by pulling the cord a few times, then finally, with relief and a bit of pride, he kneeled down behind me on the carpet and said, “Okay. I’m hard for you.”

Disturbing? Gross? Yes. Gratuitous? No.

I was also curious to see what notions of morality might surface. How would Nutting portray a predatory female without contributing to the demonization of feminine sexual assertiveness? Well, I can't say with certainty that it won't do that--people hear what they want to hear, and read what they want to read. But the book consistently refuses to belabor any particular morality—Celeste's worldview dominates, obscuring Nutting's almost entirely. In fact, I hardly reflected at all on the underlying moral questions until I began to try and write about the experience.

One question that subtly rises on reflection: What makes a monster? Celeste’s ritualistic preparations for her students’ arrival are as visceral and sinister as casting of webs. Is a monster something bent on fear and destruction? Her single-minded obsession and lack of scruples make her function on this planet simple as a vampire’s or a werewolf’s; she is a predator, a special breed of siren drawn to the newly adolescent.

Somehow, despite Celeste’s utter callousness towards anything that isn’t beautiful and young, despite her lack of feelings for the people in her life, I found myself quite frequently sympathizing with her, casting for explanations, and agreeing with her assessments of her surroundings.

Celeste Price is clearly a product of this society. America herself is youth- and beauty-obsessed and cruel or indifferent towards age and non-compliance to certain standards of appearance. Like Celeste, modern American society views human beings as commodities to be coldly assessed and then approved or discarded. Her marriage is a straightforward exchange of commodities, a “harmonious arrangement of my needing money and Ford’s needing a stunning wife,” and this shallow situation is nothing shocking to any of us; why then should it be shocking that our protagonist would use and discard her students in a similar way?

And then there’s the fact that minors are not just a fun deviance for Celeste; she has an unrelenting sexual appetite, and sex with adult males isn’t just unsatisfactory—it literally nauseates her. It’s easy to forget how attractive her husband is supposed to be (“needlessly” sexy, according to Celeste’s friends), he repulses her so.

And finally, she treats herself exactly the same way as she treats others. Her alarming habit of drugging her husband to get out of sleeping with him has its parallel in her self-doping prior to the occasional inevitable sex with him.

Some of the most successful literary villains, like Satan of Paradise Lost and of course Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, are brilliant because they get us accidentally siding with them, rooting for them, and this causes us to question our own values and assumptions as a result. How similar am I to the monster within these pages? we wonder. Am I different enough? Am I different in the right ways?

I emerged from Tampa disoriented, my world slightly askew. As a non-believer in evil, I don’t think Celeste Price is, though she’s certainly ill. Ultimately it comes down to consent and ultimate harm. It is undeniable that her main victim, Jack, is irrevocably harmed through her actions, but her other primary victim, Boyd, offers an interesting juxtaposition to this easy answer, as he seems to come out of the experience happy and unscathed, crowing with pride about the experience. Is he still a victim? Had he been her only victim, would Celeste’s exoneration be justified?

But what really got to me, more than anything else, was the theme of casual commodification. For Celeste, as for corporate America, the value of an individual lies entirely in their visual appeal, immediate usefulness, and/or spending ability. It’s a cold and cutthroat world, empty of meaningful connections, and it’s easy to see the degree to which this mindset has already conquered our culture and national values.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Listen/Sing

I've just had an epiphany about music etc.

Often we cheat ourselves out of a rich experience due to our laziness. I do this all the time with my music (among other things)--pluck one or two songs from my albums and put them all on a playlist where I can listen to only my very favorites all the time.

Why do I listen to the one or two songs? I get lazy. I don't feel like changing the music out. I don't feel like sitting through the songs that don't keep my attention. I'm a lazy listener sometimes. I want something I can easily sing along to, songs with words I know by heart, mostly the ones that happened to catch my attention (often the same ones that catch everyone's attention, for the same reason.) I miss the interesting stuff. I don't engage with the artist. I know lots of music on a very shallow level. All because I don't want to listen. I just want to sing.

This strikes me as a parable.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

False Alarm.

I've found another outlet for my political rants.

This will remain a writing/personal blog.


Speaking of which, Pank 6 is here. It's lovely and delightfully thick.


Within, kevin weidner, Matt Mahaney and I.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Squirrel Myth

Oh man. This is a hop, skip, and a jump away from becoming a political blog. I constantly find myself sitting down to write out thoughts I have, adjustments and reactions and metaphors that I come up with in my encounter with the world of politics and ideologies (typically via articles posted on Facebook, ha).

I was talking to someone I don't know very well about Ayn Rand, and he had this to say (edited for language but otherwise sic):


"Ayn Rand is definitely extreme! She is thought provoking and that is why I enjoyed the book. I do not agree with all her ideas.

I think Atlas Shrugged is about enabling. I do not think "man" is created equal. I'm not assigning value to one life versus another, just that we all struggle and excel at different things. Some of us are more industrious than others, smarter, sacrifice today for payoff tomorrow. Nature is structured to reward this, survival of the fittest. Species need this to remain healthy. The squirrel who is to lazy to gather nuts for the winter does not need to reproduce. If his industrious squirrel buddies lend a hand and help him out, he can make that many more lazy, baby squirrels. The lazy population could grow to threaten the industrious population/the species as a whole.Feeding lazy squirrels rewards negative behavior! Reinforcing and compounding the problem by increasing the likeliness of its occurrence.

Compassion is a powerful emotion! We can not sit idly by and watch starvation when we have a surplus of our own. It is in our own best interest to help other members of the species survive. We are so hard wired for this it hurts/(messes) with our sanity to not help/contribute if we can. What is the answer? Help out and create a cycle of supporting a noncontributing, dependent population. Remain cold and heartless?"


Well, here's my response.


The "lazy squirrel" story you're telling is a myth. It's a useful set of beliefs to keep wealthy squirrels (so called "industrious squirrels") from feeling guilty about the fact that their comfortable lifestyle is enjoyed not just in the face of, but quite literally at the expense of, starving and suffering squirrels the world over. It's a justification for actively fighting and ignoring your basic squirrel compassion.

It also helps to keep poor squirrels from blaming the right squirrels for the growing wage gap, unemployment rate, and the growing rate of poverty and homelessness.

Tell squirrels that if they're poor, it means they're lazy or dull or unlucky. Tell them that if they blame the system and the "industrious squirrels" it serves, it means they're bad, lazy squirrels who don't want to take accountability for their own failure. You can get quite a few extremely poor squirrels to look to blame everyone and everything else but the "industrious squirrels" that way, because no one wants to think of themselves as lazy or whiny.

Everyone is afraid they're not good enough, not bright or pretty or lucky enough. They're afraid their inherent inferiority is the reason why their hard work hasn't brought them a comfortable lifestyle like the "industrious squirrels" have. No one wants to be a "lazy squirrel." Some squirrels work hard their whole lives, and curse luck, and curse fate, and curse themselves that they never managed to turn their hard work into enough nuts to support their family. They keep their heads down and don't complain and think to themselves, "I'm not like these other squirrels, who are *actually* lazy. I'm an industrious squirrel, and any day now, I'm going to have the nuts to prove it."

And sure, some of them look around, see how dismal the options are, recognize the sizable obstacles in the way of squirrels like them ever having a lot of nuts, and they give up and let the system take care of them. But your average "lazy squirrel" works 2-4 jobs and/or overtime just to survive, thanks to union busting, minimum wage suppression, outsourcing, administrative pay inflation, predatory lending practices, irresponsible financial management by the "industrious squirrels."

Why do we think they're "industrious" again?...Oh, right! Because they have so many nuts. Squirrels never inherit nuts, do they?...or have a crazy stroke of luck that has nothing to do with hard work?...or steal a bunch of nuts by lying to lots of squirrels about the value of their investments? (...seriously, watch "Inside Job.")

Your "lazy squirrel" story just doesn't hold up to reality, my friend. But it's a handy tale for, say, trust fund squirrels, who are invested in believing it because they didn't actually *earn* anything they have (not in the sense that a squirrel with nothing would have to earn it), don't actually work hard now, and enjoy a lifestyle that essentially kills hundreds of children every day. That sounds like hyperbole, but think about it. There aren't unlimited resources in this world, which means that any resource used in one place is not available to be used in another place. When "industrious squirrels" throw fabulous parties that cost millions of dollars, those dollars are not going into the paychecks of sweatshop workers. They're not going towards feeding the starving, healing the ill. They're not saving hundreds of squirrel families from foreclosure. They're not going to the public school systems. Those dollars will not help victims of the wars the "industrious squirrels" found ways to profit from.

There is a global cache of resources. It is not unlimited. Taking more than your fair share is not a victimless crime or people wouldn't be *starving.* But hey. You're not the bad guy, you're the industrious squirrel. Those lazy squirrels need to stop whining about how many nuts you have and get their own nuts.

A lot of "industrious squirrels" actively work to defend the squirrel myth so that all of the "lazy squirrels" won't know who to blame for the nut shortages. Without misdirection, the abuses would quickly become clear; they're not subtle, after all. I mean, Citizens United? Totally unsubtle. So they misdirect the blame.

The squirrel myth is strong. Once you already assume (subconsciously) that squirrels who don't have a ton of nuts are pretty much lazy or otherwise inadequate and unworthy, it's easy to make everyone look down on the squirrels who have less nuts than they do--and at the very bottom of the food chain you typically find the squirrels who have benefited the least from the current system (i.e. the ones who have been so screwed over by the "industrious squirrels" that they know for a FACT that the "lazy squirrel" myth is a lie.) So whoever is attuned to the myth, that is, whoever believes that squirrels should stop trying to point to injustices in the system and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get to work, those squirrels are already oriented to dislike and distrust squirrels who have less power than they do. (And to respect and trust and feel inferior to those who have more.)

So who do the "industrious squirrels" blame for social ills? The least powerful, of course, and the easiest to mark as "different" and/or "morally inferior." Immigrants. Single mothers. Squirrels of color.

This is pretty ingenious, actually, because the ones who have been screwed over by systemic oppression are the most likely to track down the "industrious squirrels" who stole all of the nuts right from under us, and come after them. They're the most likely to have intimate knowledge of the loopholes in the system that allow for abuses. They're the most likely to call for justice. In one fell swoop, the "industrious squirrels" keep the growing "lazy squirrel" population from figuring out the cause of the nut shortage, and get them to turn against the segment of their own ranks that is most likely to catch the perpetrators and rectify the injustice.

The bottom line is, it's not okay to spend millions and millions of dollars on big adult toys and playtime and fun and pretty things while people starve and suffer, and we need to stop acting like it is. It's not just the way things are--we *create* the way things are through our actions (and inaction). Until there is enough for all, extravagance is shameful, and tasteless, and sickening.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Uncanny Valley

Roxanne Gay! Brian Oliu! Me! Other awesomeness!

Uncanny Valley issue 0001
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